Evensong 6th August 2017
The Queen of Sheba
I Kings 10
Although her appearance is brief, I am rather fascinated by the Queen of Sheba. I’d give a lot to know what those “hard questions” were that she wanted to put to Solomon. What did she have on her mind and how did Solomon satisfy her curiosity, and understand her so fully? We have a hint I think in her exclamations: “How happy are your wives, happy your servants who continually attend you and hear your wisdom” There is more to this, I suspect than just flattery.
What strikes me first, however, is the assumption that prosperity will follow from wisdom. Solomon is not, however, only rich; he is complimented on the decorum of his court; the food at his table and the seating of his officials. This is no brash millionaire, but a man who knows how to order his wealth with doubtless impeccable taste. Above all he recognises that his wealth and fortune are given by God and come part and parcel with his duty to exercise justice and righteousness. This is typical of the moral world of the Old Testament, in which righteousness is rewarded with wealth, and material wellbeing is the indicator of moral, or at least, religious rectitude.
The moral world of the New Testament, and our world, is different. There the beginnings of a belief in the afterlife and time and place when and where our actions in our lifetimes will be rewarded or punished, but generally the Old Testament writers are concerned with the present; the fruits of righteousness are enjoyed immediately and disasters follow swiftly on the rejection of God’s commandments. The world was created good; Eden is Paradise; the Promised Land is flowing with milk and honey; Solomon’s wealth is just an extreme example of the reward system.
Things have changed in the moral and metaphysical world of the Gospels. There is disease and political oppression and the world is haunted by malign spirits. Understandably a belief in an afterlife is more prevalent; a belief that there will be second chance in a better- fairer- world. Predictably perhaps the conservative and establishment Sadducees did not believe in resurrection, but the more sensitive and radical Pharisees did and so did Jesus. His reported teaching on the Kingdom of God is ambiguous as to time and place. It is beyond the physical or present world; although not necessarily unattainably so.
This explains the strong sense of worldly rejection which runs through the Gospels; far from being assumed righteous, the rich are much less likely to find themselves in Heaven; money distracts us from matters of real value. It may be expedient to pay Caesar, but what we render to God is what really matters, so the disciples are sent out on their missionary journeys without even a change of clothes, and the flowers of the field are just as well dressed as Solomon.
These sentiments have their most extreme expression in the very early church and in St Paul’s writing. The sale and pooling of all private property is perhaps somewhat mythical and exaggerated - it certainly did not last long. St Paul’s teaching of worldly rejection in anticipation of the imminent second coming, has had to be revised somewhat 2,000 years later. What these beliefs seem to share with the Old Testament is a belief that wealth and wellbeing follow from order, from following God’s plan. In the Old Testament that is in this world. In the New Testament it is somehow remoter, but has the same longing for God’s will to be done.
The Church has of course always been aware of this and throughout its history there has been a wariness of wealth and an embarrassment in riches. A wariness and embarrassment that have often been successfully suppressed, but generally I think the St Francises and the ascetics have been more influential than the Borgias and for every fabulous cathedral there is a school, hospital or alms-house.
In secular life too we have a certain ambivalence about wealth. We are conscious that the collective greed and selfishness of the rich and powerful contribute enormously to unfair distribution of wealth and happiness in the world. Individually we are often generous in response to disaster and individual need, but as a nation we do very little to change the order, the crooked structures that cause it. And yet we know, that is not how creation was intended to be; the new world was good for all its inhabitants, but the intended order has broken down.
This is perhaps what the Queen of Sheba saw in Solomon’s arrangements. She was hugely wealthy herself, as we are told, but yet troubled by something. She found the answer in Solomon’s wisdom and expresses her admiration for the order of his court (and not least the ability to keep 700 wives happy!) That order reflects, I think, Solomon’s wider respect for God’s law. I think we may find answers to our hard questions in trying to discern that order and in seeking to apply the law of respect and love for creation and for our fellow creatures. Amen.
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